Contempt of Court
We’ve all seen movies and television shows where someone is held in contempt of court, usually because of some outburst like insulting the judge. The truth is, however, that contempt of court is a very real and serious action that can occur for a multitude of reasons. You don’t even have to be in court when you perform the act that the Court can hold you in contempt. Generally speaking, if you do something that is in violation of a Court Order, you can be held in contempt, in addition to receiving other penalties for violation of the Court Order.
Contempt of Court can take a variety of forms, but all are serious infractions. Learn about what it means to be held in contempt of court and to have to accuse someone else of it, and how an Atlanta contempt attorney can help.
Types of Contempt of Court
The basic definition of contempt of court is any behavior, in court or outside of court, that disobeys the previous Court Order. There are several varieties of contempt. They are divided into two categories: civil and criminal. There are two types of civil contempt.
The first type of civil contempt is the one with which most people are most familiar: being disrespectful or rude to the judge, attorneys or officers of the court, or otherwise causing a disturbance in the courtroom. Usually, this form of contempt comes after a judge issues a warning.
The second type of contempt is less well-known. This version of contempt is the willful failure to obey a court order. This can include situations like violating restraining orders or failing to abide by court-issued divorce orders such as paying alimony or child support, or interfering with the other parent’s custody or visitation rights. These two types of contempt are also known as direct (contempt in the court) and indirect (contempt outside of the court).
The third, and rarest, form of contempt is criminal contempt. This form of contempt is imposed when someone deliberately acts to obstruct justice. Criminal contempt can be handed down when someone threatens a witness or judge, does something to hide or obscure evidence, or deliberately disobeys a Court Order after being directed not to do so again.
Judges have broad discretion in leveling contempt of court, and they use many factors to determine whether to hold someone responsible and whether the contempt is civil or criminal. These factors can include the nature of the court proceeding and the severity of the act. It’s unlikely (but not unheard of), for example, to be charged with criminal contempt of court in a civil proceeding.
What Are the Penalties for Contempt?
Contempt of court can carry a number of penalties, which are often referred to as sanctions. Sanctions that can be imposed most often involve fines and the injured party’s attorneys fees, but they can be more serious and can include jail time. This jail time can be very serious in cases of criminal contempt, and the contempt can carry other penalties as well, depending on how serious the infraction was.
Procedure for Direct Contempt of Court
In a case of direct contempt of court, the procedure and punishment are immediate and swift. The judge simply declares that the offender has been found in contempt. The judge then immediately adds the punishment, which usually is a fine, confinement for a day or two, or both. In rare cases, confinement can extend to several months, or until further Order of the Court – whenever that may be.
This punishment, however, cannot be arbitrary. The judge is required to record the conduct and the punishment, and the conduct must be offensive, interfere with the proceedings or both, and the punishment should fit the offense. Punishment, in this case, is immediate, which is very rare under U.S. law.
Procedure for Indirect Contempt of Court
In a situation regarding indirect contempt of court, the judge will issue a finding of indirect contempt. The alleged offender must then appear in court, along with the person alleging their conduct. A summons is issued containing the date and time they are required to appear, and the court will hear both sides of the story.
If the alleged offender is found to be in contempt, punishments similar to those in direct contempt can be issued — that is, fines and/or incarceration for a brief period of time. In situations of indirect contempt, the punishment usually continues until the offender ceases their offending behavior.
Procedure for Criminal Contempt
When someone is charged with criminal contempt, they have all the same rights under the Constitution that anyone charged with a crime has, including the right to counsel and the right to a trial by jury. These cases can be tricky because sometimes the judge who imposed the charge also presides over the contempt case. Penalties for criminal contempt are punitive and almost always involve incarceration. When criminal contempt is imposed, separate charges are filed, which can be tried separately and may go on after the case that led to them ends.
Can I Appeal a Contempt Ruling?
Generally speaking, you can’t appeal contempt of court, because it is issued at the discretion of a judge who has the authority to control their own proceedings. If, however, the fine or jail time handed down are excessive, a contempt ruling can be appealed. In order to appeal a contempt ruling, you need to be able to conclusively demonstrate that either you were not out of line or that the penalties were excessive and didn’t fit what you did.
Types of Civil Contempt
There are a broad number of situations that can result in contempt of court. These include (but may not be limited to):
- Acting out in the courtroom
- Being rude or disrespectful to court officials such as attorneys or judges
- Refusing to answer direct questions (unless answering would violate your Fifth Amendment rights)
- Failure to pay fines
- Failure to sign and file court papers in a timely fashion
- Failure to pay court-ordered child support
- Failure to follow court rules
- Interfering with custody or visitation
Jail Time for Child Support Contempt
Failure to pay child support is the same as failing to obey a court order. When you fail to pay child support, the other parent can request that the judge find you in civil contempt. You must then appear before a judge and defend your reasons for failing to pay child support.
If you don’t appear in court, a warrant can be issued and you can be arrested. Even if you attend, the judge can still impose jail time for violation of the order, but the time may be less severe than if you refuse to appear. You will need to prove at your hearing that you didn’t deliberately disobey, that you aren’t irresponsible and that you will pay the support as ordered.
You can also request a modification hearing to alter your child support requirements. If you have been charged with failure to pay child support, it’s a good idea to have a lawyer in your corner who can help defend your rights.